Reports Illuminate NCLB Debates

K-12 Testing

Three recent publications illuminate the continuing debate over No Child Left Behind (NCLB).


The Final Report of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) Task Force is the product of a nearly year-long series of hearings and meetings on NCLB organized by the bi-partisan organization. Because many of the conditions for granting federal money to states under NCLB are ambiguous and because coercion is applied to states, the report argues that the law violates the U.S. Constitution. Examples of ambiguity include constantly changing agreements states have struck with the Department of Education on measuring “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) and determining the size of groups for accountability purposes.


Two chapters address accountability and AYP, including a chapter focused on students with disabilities or limited English proficiency (LEP), for whom better assessments and more reasonable expectations are greatly needed.


The Task Force pointedly says, “Standardized tests are far from perfect measures of student achievement and function better in combination with other measures, such as student portfolios.” The report recommends the use of multiple measures for evaluating schools. This is noteworthy in that many states were using standardized test scores to evaluate schools prior to NCLB, and 20 states now require students to pass a test in order to graduate. This message needs to be heard by the states as well as the federal government.


NCSL also charges that the AYP “provisions are overly prescriptive and rigid.” There are too many ways to fail, so schools are overidentified as not making adequate progress. The goal that almost all children will score proficient by 2014 is not achievable under NCLB and should be replaced with realistic academic goals.


• Online at


Public Education Network (PEN)
Open to the Public: Speaking Out on “No Child Left Behind,” contains powerful descriptions of many profound problems with NCLB. The pivotal section, on testing and accountability, offers the eloquent voices of students, parents and community members denouncing the damaging consequences of the over-reliance on standardized tests in NCLB and state accountability programs. The PEN report reinforces major criticisms of NCLB and high-stakes testing. These exams undermine rather than improve schools by turning them into test-prep programs; they lead to harmful consequences to students and schools, and NCLB fails to comprehensively address real educational needs. Among many moving quotations:


• One Chicago student said, “I feel as if I am going to school for the sole purpose of learning how to pass the tests.”


• Rev. Sallie Jo Snyder of Erie, PA, said, “I grieve that NCLB has turned our classrooms into pressured assembly lines whose job it has become to turn out rote robots who have learned what to do and how to do it to pass a test and save a school from being labeled a failure. What about the children?”


• “Students reported an insidious process going on in their schools — intense test prep teaching that guarantees students will become disengaged from academic learning, so teachers and administrators respond with even more of the same. ‘The tests have completely taken over the school,’ observed a Columbus, Ohio, student, ‘but if you look deeply, students haven’t really learned anything.’”


PEN also conducted a website-based survey. Ninety percent or more of the 12,000 respondents answered “No” to the questions, “Do you believe that a single annual test can tell if the entire student body needs academic improvement?” and, “Do you believe that a single annual test can tell if individual students are performing satisfactorily?”


Unfortunately, the recommendations fail to address many of the issues the report raises. PEN’s one proposal on testing is to allow “growth” measures. This is a reasonable request, but it does not address most of the problems identified by the parents and students in this report. Other report chapters address teacher quality and parent and community involvement.


• Online at:  


Center on Education Policy (CEP)
The report from CEP provides a detailed look at NCLB results and implementation issues, primarily from the perspectives of state and district administrators whom it interviewed and surveyed. From the Capitol to the Classroom documents that states and districts have made great efforts at implementation, but it concludes that without changes to the regulations or the law itself, the broader goals of improved academic performance and narrowed achievement gaps will not be met.


In particular, schools face great difficulties in meeting the requirements for students with disabilities or limited English proficiency. The report noted these are “requirements many state and local officials view as unfair, unrealistic, inappropriate, or instructionally meaningless.”


CEP points out that many states and districts have reported gains on state tests. However, CEP acknowledges that it will take independent measures, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as well as additional time, to ascertain whether these increases represent true learning gains in the tested subjects. Historically, test gains tend to level off after a few years, and teaching to one test may not lead to score increases on tests not taught to. CEP did not question the educational value or consequences of the reported increased alignment of instruction to the tests. Educational leaders did say that untested subjects often are taught less. In general, the CEP report is far less critical than the NCSL and PEN reports on testing, accountability and other central NCLB issues.


As did NCSL and PEN, CEP recognizes that additional funding will be necessary to meet the goal of all students attaining the proficient level. NCSL is particularly strong on this, arguing that the expectation that all students can attain the proficient level without significant additional funding “conflicts with research, experience and common sense.”


• CEP is led by Jack Jennings, the former staff director of the U.S. House Education Committee. Online at